Part 10, Chapter 4 : The Pigeon
Part 10, Chapter 4
JOHN GALSWORTHY calls this play a fantasy. To me it seems cruelly real: it demonstrates that the best human material is crushed in the fatal mechanism of our life. "The Pigeon" also discloses to us the inadequacy of charity, individual and organized, to cope with poverty, as well as the absurdity of reformers and experimenters who attempt to patch up effects while they ignore the causes.
Christopher Wellwyn, an artist, a man deeply in sympathy with all human sorrow and failings, generously shares his meager means with everyone who applies to him for help.
His daughter Ann is of a more practical turn of mind. She cannot understand that giving is as natural and necessary to her father as light and air; indeed, the greatest joy in life.
Perhaps Ann is actuated by anxiety for her father who is so utterly "hopeless" that he would give away his "last pair of trousers." From her point of view "people who beg are rotters": decent folk would not stoop to begging. But Christopher Wellwyn's heart is too full of humanity to admit of such a straightlaced attitude. "We're not all the same.... One likes to be friendly. What's the use of being alive if one isn't?"
Unfortunately most people are not alive to the tragedies around them. They are often unthinking mechanisms, mere tabulating machines, like Alfred Calway, the Professor, who believes that "we're to give the State all we can spare, to make the undeserving deserving." Or as Sir Hoxton, the Justice of the Peace, who insists that "we ought to support private organizations for helping the deserving, and damn the undeserving." Finally there is the Canon who religiously seeks the middle road and "wants a little of both."
When Ann concludes that her father is the despair of all social reformers, she is but expressing a great truism; namely, that social reform is a cold and bloodless thing that can find no place in the glowing humanity of Christopher Wellwyn.
It is Christmas Eve, the birth of Him who came to proclaim "Peace on earth, good will to all." Christopher Wellwyn is about to retire when he is disturbed by a knock on the door.
The snow-covered, frost-pinched figure of Guinevere Megan appears. She is a flower-seller to whom Wellwyn had once given his card that she might find him in case of need. She comes to him when the rest of the world has passed her by, forlorn and almost as dead as her violets which no one cares to buy.
At sight of her misery Wellwyn forgets his daughter's practical admonition and his promise to her not to be "a fool." He treats the flowerseller tenderly, makes her warm and comfortable. He has barely time to show Guinevere into his model's room, when another knock is heard. This time it is Ferrand, "an alien," a globe trotter without means,--a tramp whom Wellwyn had once met in the Champs-Elysees. Without food for days and unable to endure the cold, Ferrand too comes to the artist.
Ferrand. If I had not found you, Monsieur--I would have been a little hole in the river to-night-I was so discouraged.... And to think that in a few minutes He will be born! . . . The world would reproach you for your goodness to me. Monsieur, if He himself were on earth now, there would be a little heap of gentlemen writing to the journals every day to call him sloppee sentimentalist! And what is veree funny, these gentlemen they would all be most strong Christians. But that will not trouble you, Monsieur; I saw well from the first that you are no Christian. You have so kind a face.
Ferrand has deeper insight into the character of Christopher Wellwyn than his daughter. He knows that the artist would not judge nor could he refuse one whom misery stares in the face. Even the third visitor of Wellwyn, the old cabman Timson, with more whiskey than bread in his stomach, receives the same generous reception as the other two.
The next day Ann calls a council of war. The learned Professor, Alfred Calway; the wise judge, Sir Thomas Hoxton; and the professional Christian, Edward Bertley--the Canon--are summoned to decide the fate of the three outcasts.
There are few scenes in dramatic literature so rich in satire, so deep in the power of analysis as the one in which these eminent gentlemen discuss human destiny. Canon Bertley is emphatic that it is necessary to "remove the temptation and reform the husband of the flower-seller."
Bertley. Now, what is to be done?
Mrs. Megan. I could get an unfurnished room, if I'd the money to furnish it.
Bertley. Never mind the money. What I want to find in you is repentance.
Those who are engaged in saving souls cannot be interested in such trifles as money matters, nor to understand the simple truth that if the Megans did not have to bother with making a "livin'," repentance would take care of itself.
The other two gentlemen are more worldly, since law and science cannot experiment with such elusive things as the soul. Professor Calway opines that Timson is a congenital case, to be put under observation, while Judge Hoxton-decides that he must be sent to prison.
Calway. Is it, do you think, chronic unemployment with a vagrant tendency? Or would it be nearer the mark to say: Vagrancy-- Dipsomaniac?. .. By the look of his face, as far as one can see it, I should say there was a leaning towards mania. I know the treatment.
Hoxton. Hundreds of these fellows before me in my time. The only thing is a sharp lesson!
Calway. I disagree. I've seen the man; what he requires is steady control, and the Dobbins treatment.
Hoxton. Not a bit of it! He wants one for his knob! Bracing him up! It's the only thing!
Calway. You're moving backwards, Sir Thomas. I've told you before, convinced reactionaryism, in these days--The merest sense of continuity--a simple instinct for order--
Hoxton. The only way to get order, sir, is to bring the disorderly up with a round turn. You people without practical experience--
Calway. The question is a much wider one, Sir Thomas.
Hoxton. No, sir, I repeat, if the country once commits itself to your views of reform, it's as good as doomed.
Calway. I seem to have heard that before, Sir Thomas. And let me say at once that your hitty-missy cart-load of bricks regime--
Hoxton. Is a deuced sight better, sir, than your grandmotherly methods. What the old fellow wants is a shock! With all this socialistic molly-coddling, you're losing sight of the individual.
Calway. You, sir, with your "devil take the hindmost," have never seen him.
The farce ends by each one insisting on the superiority of his own pet theory, while misery continues to stalk white-faced through the streets.
Three months later Ann determines to rescue her father from his disreputable proclivities by removing with him to a part of the city where their address will remain unknown to his beggar friends and acquaintances.
While their belongings are being removed, Canon Bertley relates the trouble he had with Mrs. Megan.
Bertley. I consulted with Calway and he advised me to try a certain institution. We got her safely in--excellent place; but, d'you know, she broke out three weeks ago. And since--I've heard--hopeless, I'm afraid--quite! . . . I'm sometimes tempted to believe there's nothing for some of these poor folk but to pray for death.
Wellwyn. The Professor said he felt there was nothing for some of these poor devils but a lethal chamber.
What is science for if not to advise a lethal chamber ? It's the easiest way to dispose of "the unfit" and to supply learned professors with the means of comfortable livelihood.
Yet there is Ferrand, the vagabond, the social outcast who has never seen the inside of a university, propounding a philosophy which very few professors even dream of:
Ferrand. While I was on the road this time I fell ill of a fever. It seemed to me in my illness that I saw the truth--how I was wasting in this world--I would never be good for anyone--nor anyone for me-all would go by, and I never of it--fame, and fortune, and peace, even the necessities of life, ever mocking me. And I saw, so plain, that I should be vagabond all my days, and my days short; I dying in the end the death of a dog. I saw it all in my fever--clear as that flame-there was nothing for us others, but the herb of death. And so I wished to die. I told no one of my fever. I lay out on the ground--it was verree cold. But they would not let me die on the roads of their parishes-They took me to an Institution. I looked in their eyes while I lay there, and I saw more clear than the blue heaven that they thought it best that I should die, although they would not let me. Then naturally my spirit rose, and I said: "So much the worse for you. I will live a little more." One is made like that! Life is sweet. That little girl you had here, Monsieur--in her too there is something of wild savage. She must have joy of life. I have seen her since I came back. She has embraced the life of joy. It is not quite the same thing. She is lost, Monsieur, as a stone that sinks in water. I can see, if she cannot.... For the great part of mankind, to see anything--is fatal. No, Monsieur. To be so near to death has done me good; I shall not lack courage any more till the wind blows on my grave. Since I saw you, Monsieur, I have been in three Institutions. They are palaces.... One little thing they lack--those palaces. It is understanding of the 'uman heart. In them tame birds pluck wild birds naked. Ah! Monsieur, I am loafer, waster--what you like--for all that, poverty is my only crime. If I were rich, should I not be simply verree original, 'ighly respected, with soul above commerce, traveling to see the world? And that young girl, would she not be "that charming ladee," "veree chic, you know!" And the old Tims--good old-fashioned gentleman--drinking his liquor well. Eh! bien--what are we now ? Dark beasts, despised by all. That is life, Monsieur. Monsieur, it is just that. You understand. When we are with you we feel something-here--If I had one prayer to make, it would be, "Good God, give me to understand!" Those sirs, with their theories, they can clean our skins and chain our 'abits--that soothes for them the esthetic sense; it gives them too their good little importance. But our spirits they cannot touch, for they nevare understand. Without that, Monsieur, all is dry as a parched skin of orange. Monsieur, of their industry I say nothing. They do a good work while they attend with their theories to the sick and the tame old, and the good unfortunate deserving. Above all to the little children. But, Monsieur, when all is done, there are always us hopeless ones. What can they do with me, Monsieur, with that girl, or with that old man? Ah! Monsieur, we too, 'ave our qualities, we others--it wants you courage to undertake a career like mine, or like that young girl's. We wild ones--we know a thousand times more of life than ever will those sirs. They waste their time trying to make rooks white. Be kind to us if you will, or let us alone like Mees Ann, but do not try to change our skins. Leave us to live, or leave us to die when we like in the free air. If you do not wish of us, you have but to shut your pockets and your doors--we shall die the faster. . . . If you cannot, how is it our fault? The harm we do to others--is it so much? If I am criminal, dangerous--shut me up! I would not pity myself--nevare. But we in whom something moves--like that flame, Monsieur, that cannot keep still--we others--we are not many--that must have motion in our lives, do not let them make us prisoners, with their theories, because we are not like them--it is life itself they would enclose! . . . The good God made me so that I would rather walk a whole month of nights, hungry, with the stars, than sit one single day making round business on an office stool! It is not to my advantage. I cannot help it that I am a vagabond. What would you have? It is stronger than me. Monsieur, I say to you things I have never said. Monsieur! Are you really English? The English are so civilized.
Truly the English are highly "civilized"; else it would be impossible to explain why of all the nations on earth, the Anglo-Saxons should be the only ones to punish attempts at suicide.
Society makes no provision whatever for the Timsons, the Ferrands and Mrs. Megans. It has closed the door in their face, denying them a seat at the table of life. Yet when Guinevere Megan attempts to drown herself, a benevolent constable drags her out and a Christian Judge sends her to the workhouse.
Constable. Well, sir, we can't get over the facts, can we? . . . You know what soocide amounts to--it's an awkward job.
Wellwyn. But look here, Constable, as a reasonable man--This poor wretched little girl-you know what that life means better than anyone! Why! It's to her credit to try and jump out of it!
Constable. Can't neglect me duty, sir; that's impossible.
Wellwyn. Of all the d--d topsy-turvy--! Not a soul in the world wants her alive--and now she is to be prosecuted for trying to go where everyone wishes her.
Is it necessary to dwell on the revolutionary significance of this cruel reality? It is so all-embracing in its sweep, so penetrating of the topsy-turviness of our civilization, with all its cant and artifice, so powerful in its condemnation of our cheap theories and cold institutionalism which freezes the soul and destroys the best and finest in our being. The Wellwyns, Ferrands, and Megans are the stuff out of which a real humanity might be fashioned. They feel the needs of their fellows, and whatever is in their power to give, they give as nature does, unreservedly. But the Hoxtons, Calways and Bertleys have turned the world into a dismal prison and mankind into monotonous, gray, dull shadows.
The professors, judges, and preachers cannot meet the situation. Neither can Wellwyn, to be sure. And yet his very understanding of the differentiation of human nature, and his sympathy with the inevitable reaction of conditions upon it, bring the Wellwyns much closer to the solution of our evils than all the Hoxtons, Calways and Bertleys put together. This deep conception of social factors is in itself perhaps the most significant lesson taught in "The Pigeon."
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